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O'Brien, Bernard McCarthy (Bernie) (1924–1993)

by Ann Westmore

This article was published online in 2017

Bernard McCarthy O’Brien (1924–1993), microsurgeon, was born on 25 December 1924 in Melbourne, the second of five sons of Victorian-born parents Francis Joseph O’Brien, accountant, and his wife Loretto Ann, née McCarthy, music teacher. Bernie (as he was known) suffered two early losses: the deaths of his younger brother, Peter, in 1937, and his mother three years later. Despite these setbacks, he was an able student and a tenacious athlete during his secondary schooling at Xavier College, near his home at Kew. In 1943 he secured a free place in medicine at the University of Melbourne and started combined science and medical degrees. A resident of Newman College, he earned the nickname ‘Champ’ for his creditable performances in intervarsity and State-level pole-vaulting, in spite of his stocky build.

After graduation (BSc, 1948; MB, BS, 1950) O’Brien undertook resident training at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, then worked as a demonstrator in anatomy at the university. From 1954 to 1955 he also gained experience as a clinical assistant at both the Royal Melbourne Hospital plastic surgery unit and at St Vincent’s. A leading Melbourne plastic surgeon, Benjamin Rank, helped him gain the position of Nuffield assistant in plastic surgery at the University of Oxford (1956–57). Impatient for hands-on experience, he resigned before completing his training to take up a post as plastic surgical registrar at Odstock Hospital, Salisbury (1957–58). There he met Joan Williams, a triple-certificate nurse working in the female plastic surgery ward. They married on 18 December 1958 at St Osmond’s Roman Catholic Church, Salisbury. In 1959 the couple went to New York where O’Brien specialised in hand surgery at Roosevelt Hospital under the pioneering surgeon J. William Littler.

Equipped with overseas credentials, on his return to Melbourne in 1960 O’Brien started a private practice in Collins Street. That year he was appointed clinical assistant to the plastic surgeon and then acting assistant plastic surgeon at St Vincent’s (1961). At times ‘outspoken’ and ‘critical’ (Vellar 2004, 90), he fell out with senior colleagues at the hospital and his appointment was not renewed. He continued to pursue his research interests and in 1964 started surgical investigations of small blood vessels, nerves, and tendons at St Vincent’s, using a microscope loaned to him by the ophthalmologist Gerard Crock. In 1968 Richard Bennett, the new University of Melbourne professor of surgery at St Vincent’s, made O’Brien an honorary research assistant, or ‘main investigator’ in Bennett’s words. The same year, the hospital reappointed him as an assistant plastic surgeon and he won the first of many research grants.

In 1970, with his characteristic drive, optimism, and entrepreneurship, O’Brien persuaded a businessman, Sir William Kilpatrick, to chair a foundation to raise funds for research and the purchase of up-to-date facilities. Subsequently, a microsurgery research unit was established, but it was not until 1976 that it became a formal entity of St Vincent’s, with O’Brien as its director. His vision to advance the unit, as well as disagreements about financial and fund-raising priorities, had initially caused tension with the hospital administration.

Over the following decade, O’Brien strengthened the scientific and surgical expertise of the unit, which rapidly developed an international reputation for training, research, and clinical innovation. In 1978, launching an appeal to raise money for a new building, he noted that the unit had already performed more than four thousand operations including the reimplantation of severed fingers and limbs, as well as the transfer of muscles, tendons, small joints, and bones to other parts of the body. Crock, a long-standing director of the foundation, considered O’Brien an ‘imperturbable, thorough and painstaking’ microsurgeon, and was in awe of his ‘networking genius’ when it came to fund-raising (Westmore 2004). In 1984 he oversaw the design and construction of a $1 million building to house the Microsurgery Research Centre at Fitzroy.

O’Brien gained further degrees from the University of Melbourne (MS, 1955; MD, 1978) and wrote numerous chapters in surgical textbooks and journal articles. His doctoral thesis became the classic textbook Microvascular Reconstructive Surgery (1977), later revised as Reconstructive Microsurgery (with Wayne A. Morrison, 1987). Of his many awards, the most significant was the René Leriche prize for vascular surgery from the Société Internationale de Chirurgie in 1979. He was appointed CMG in 1982, AC in 1991, and Victorian of the Year in 1992. A long-time member of the council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (vice-president 1989–91), he was awarded the Sir Hugh Devine medal for his contribution to surgery in 1993. He was president of the International Federation of Societies for Surgery of the Hand (1979–83) and the International Society of Reconstructive Microsurgery (1979–81). Travelling widely, he maintained a network of worldwide contacts and was admitted as a fellow of the colleges of surgeons in the United States of America, Ireland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and South Africa. From 1983, alumni who trained in microsurgery under him gathered at international meetings as the Bernard O’Brien Society.

On 14 August 1993 O’Brien died of lung cancer at Kew and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery; he was survived by his wife, three daughters, and two sons. Two years after his death, the newly expanded Microsurgery Research Centre was renamed the Bernard O’Brien Institute of Microsurgery. His portrait, painted by Paul Fitzgerald in 1992, hangs in the institute’s foyer.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bennett, Richard. Personal communication
  • Connell, John. ‘Bernard O’Brien.’ In Annual Report of the Microsurgery Research Centre, 10–11. Fitzroy, Vic.: Microsurgery Research Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital, 1991–93
  • Morrison, W. A. ‘Obituary: Bernard McCarthy O’Brien.’ British Journal of Plastic Surgery 47, no. 3 (1994): 204–5
  • Vellar, Ivo. Surgery and Surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, 1950s2000. Richmond, Vic.: Publishing Solutions, c. 2004
  • Westmore, Ann, ed. ‘From “Soft” to “Hard” Science: The Development of Microvascular Surgery in Australia.’ Witness to the History of Australian Medicine seminar, 30 March 2004. Transcript. Johnstone-Need Medical History Unit, University of Melbourne. Accessed 31 December 2015. http://www.jnmhugateways.unimelb.edu.au/witness/pdfs/witn-2004-03-30.pdf. Copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

Ann Westmore, 'O'Brien, Bernard McCarthy (Bernie) (1924–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-bernard-mccarthy-bernie-18052/text29629, published online 2017, accessed online 23 September 2019.

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